Updated: Jul 19, 2020
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Writers read a lot. Writers write about everything. So it’s only natural that writers would write about the books they read. Isn’t it?
Book journaling improves your writing. If you’re not keeping a book journal, you should.
The best book journals are more than lists
There’s more to a good book journal than a catalog listing of authors, titles, and dates. It’s a reader-response entry, an honest emotional reaction to the story that might include descriptions of memorable characters, a plot summary, intriguing elements, recurring motifs, and beautiful passages. You make it whatever you want it to be, but the benefit comes NOT from knowing the author and the title, but from understanding the response the book provokes.
Over the years, my format has varied, but now somewhere deep into the sixth volume of double-sided entries, I’ve developed a basic format. (Sadly, my “Book Journal #1” is missing from my set, but I have hopes I’ll come across it someday shoved in a box of notebooks somewhere.) Until then, there are five other book journals to delve into for inspiration., so for this, I pulled “Book Journal #2: 1999–2001.
My format usually includes these things:
Year it was published… (and often the publisher, but not always)
Date I finished it, or a general time period I read it. (March 2001)
The opening line of the novel
The closing line of the work
Basic plot summary
A my-star rating on a scale of 1–5, with 5 being a fabulous “read”
1) Book journals act as a memory aid and teach you about the industry
You’ve probably read hundreds of books in your lifetime. Unless you’re blessed with a photographic memory, you don’t remember each and every volume you’ve absorbed. But if you keep a book journal, what you’ve read will come roaring back to you with your jottings, whether it be a one-sentence summary, character description, or a beautiful quote.
"The-oh-yeah-I-remember-that!” response helps your writing. It keeps you from replicating a plot that’s been done before. Remembering the books you’ve read may push your brain in a new direction by taking an idea and mutating it into a totally different form. You might consider an era in history or a remote geographical location for your next piece that you hadn’t considered before you read that book. Knowing which books hit it big in previous years can indicate a trend or potential sales area for the future, just as remembering “bad” books teaches you what NOT to do in your writing.
The more you know about books, the better you’ll be able to craft query letters and mention comparable titles. You’ll be able to write book reviews, conduct author profiles, and investigate interesting back-stories. You’ll have a better understanding of the publishing world and the word-industry, and since that’s where you live, it’s important.
Reading voraciously is only half the battle; remembering what you’ve read is the other. That’s where your book journal comes in. Decades after you’ve read a work, you’ll recall the basic elements of a book just by the notes you made.
2) Book journals expand your thinking with interesting ideas
If I hadn’t jotted down some of the interesting premises of books I’ve read, I would have forgotten them, even though they’re real “doozies” of ideas.
Take a book called Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels and published in 1996. An 8-year-old boy watches the Nazis massacre his parents and then buries himself in a peat bog to escape, only to be found by a Greek archeologist and botanist who raises him. The boy becomes a prize-winning poet.
Or One Thousand White Women by Jim Fergus where women are released from asylums to be assimilated into Native American culture and give birth to children that exemplify both cultures.
In The Professor and the Madman, by Simon Winchester, one of the main contributors to the Oxford Dictionary was a military officer who had gone crazy during the civil war and spent his time ever after in the asylum researching words for the dictionary project.
A book called The Snow Falcon by Stuart Harrison is the story of a man who suffers a mental breakdown after killing his wife’s lover and threatening his own wife and child. He comes home to put his past behind him, but is ostracized by the town and takes refuge in healing and re-training a snow falcon.
Book Journal #2, reminded me of these works that I hadn’t thought of in two decades. If I hadn’t written them down, I would have lost track of these truly interesting ideas which may — at some point in my life — spawn blogs or books from these worthy seeds.
For example, I got spin-off ideas from Fugitive Pieces: What do I know about peat bogs? Where are they found? What are they used for? How many children of WWII became poets? What is the botany of Greece? Do they garden there? What was the effect of WWII on Greece? How many Jewish people lived in Greece before the war? How many Jews lost their lives in Greece? Are there characteristics of Greek poetry that are different from the rest of the world? What are the best travel destinations in Greece now? What kind of food do they eat in Greece?
All those ideas generated from reading one book and the two-sentence summary I jotted down twenty-one years ago.
3) Book journals help you determine your criteria for greatness so you can replicate that in your writing
After each reading of a book, I give it a rating, from a one-star to a five-star. Most of what I read earns a 3 or a 4. When I designate five stars, it’s what I consider a “great read,” one that stimulates my mind, touches my heart, and makes a memory.
In case you’re wondering, in that three year period covered in book journal #2, My five-star ratings were
Ahab’s Wife by Sena Jeter Naslund
French Dirt by Richard Goodman
Some Wildflower in My Heart, by Jamie Langston Turner
Peace Like a River by Leif Enger
The Red Tent by Anita Diamante
What made these books worthy of a five-star rating?
Multiple believable characters. Depth of plot. A compelling story. Evocative language. Something in the story that correlated with my own existence. A connection to the universal human emotions of love, friendship, fear, sadness, and loss.
Do I want to replicate those elements in my own writing?
4) Book journals are a repository of beautiful language
Why is the most common advice to writers, “Read MORE”?
Because reading fills our tank. It fuels our brain. It provides plots, characters, story arcs, point-of-view options, structure ideas, and millions of examples of good writing. Reading shows us what is possible. While putting words together to provoke a reaction, describe a character, or suggest a theme is not as easy as it sounds, you can improve how you write by absorbing powerful language.
My book journals are filled with phrases that resonated with me, passages that captured tone so precisely I could HEAR the author. Take this sentence from Anne Lamott’s Traveling Mercies. On reading it, I immediately recalled the irreverent, funny, honesty of this author in all her works. She asks for direction from a higher power, pleading for
“…cereal flakes dropping from Heaven forming letters of instruction in the snow.”
Or the epitaph that captured the essence of a character in Mother of Pearl, by Malinda Haynes.
“She Who Loved Much in Spite of Things”
The ending line of the same novel, Mother of Pearl:
“They stood ankle-deep in water the color of ten-minute tea and smiled.”
From Anita Diamante’s The Red Tent:
“Egypt loved the lotus because it never dies. It is the same for people who are loved. Thus can something as insignificant as a name — two syllabules, one high, one sweet — summon up the innumerable smiles and tears, signs and dreams of a human life.”
And finally, from The Last Time They Met by Anita Shreve, right before a character commits suicide:
“But not before he has known the unforgiving light of the equator, a love that exists only in his imagination, and the enduring struggle to capture in words the infinite possibilities of a life not lived.”
There’s a common popular phrase, “Garbage in. Garbage out.” The same goes for language. “Beauty in. Beauty out.”
Savor those words. Taste the language. Swallow deep the syntax. Imbibe the heady elixir of meaning found in beautiful phrases. Your writing will improve.
5) Book journals provide consistent writing practice
If you are reading, then keeping a book journal provides consistent, quality writing practice.
Have you tried summarizing an entire book in a sentence? Again, it’s not as easy as it sounds, but doing so teaches you how to target main ideas, condense them efficiently, and choose meaningful words for the greatest impact. (You have to craft a sentence that will recall the essence of the book years later.)
Worthy skills for a writer.
Here’s my one-sentence summary of Leif Enger’s Peace Like a River:
“It was a beautifully written, evocative book about faith and family and miracles and the unthinkable tragedies that sometimes follow the best of families.”
Is that enough to tell me exact plot details? No. But does it make me remember the book in general? Yes. It had to do with a family where one of the boys shot someone during a robbery and how it changed the course of their lives. And the suggestion of miracles through faith ran through it.
I am a strong proponent of the “writing-every-day” philosophy, but for me that doesn’t mean publishing every day. It means writing, practicing, opening up a vein and pouring forth the words in some way each day of my life. Book journaling is just one more way to consistently polish my skills and compile ideas.
6) Book journals allow you to study specific components of writing
Do you struggle with opening lines? Do you know how to wrap it up with a wallop? What better way to study introductions and conclusions than to observe the strategies and language of succcessful, published authors? Jot down the opening and closing lines in your journal.
Do chapter titles cause you angst? Make note of several chapter titles or naming strategies in the books you’ve read. You may see possibilities that you haven’t even thought of.
Does dialogue do you in? Make notes of page numbers or passages that are effective dialogue. Learn from the masters.
Do you need to know how to propel readers forward? Make note of the last sentences of each chapter and how they push the reader to move forward.
No matter what element of writing you need help with, you’ll find the answer in the books you’ve read if you take a few minutes to jot down notes.
7) Book journals chronicle your life and prompt personal stories
Remember a specific book that spoke to you at a specific time period of your life? I was reading Bridges of Madison County by Robert James Waller when I was desperately unhappy in my marriage. I read Nicholas Sparks’ The Notebook on an airplane just after my dad had a major stroke, sobbing so hard I gulped for air and startled the passenger next to me. I was reading Owen Wister’s The Virginian when I almost died from appendicitis while staying in a mountain cabin eight miles off a logging road in Montana. I read Ahab’s Wife on a blissfully “solitary” day sitting on a dock of a small Illinois lake. So many books. So many memories of my own life intertwined.
Reading entries in my book journal reminds me that it’s not just about the books themselves, but about how the book reflects my life. Maybe the best example is a passage I copied from The Red Tent.
I was newly, and happily, divorced, feeling like I was released from bondage. Finally able to do what I wanted to do without criticism. Strong and independent, I was able to be myself and control my own destiny, sentiments echoed exactly in the main character of Diamante’s book:
“I found great joy in keeping my own house. There was such sweetness in deciding where to place a chair and in choosing what to plant in the garden. I relished creating my own order and hummed whenever I swept the floor or folded blankets. I spent hours arranging pots in the kitchen, first in order of size, and then according to color.”
Such a simple passage, but so meaningful to me.
Reading that entry in my book journal was like having a film of my life flashed across the screen of my brain. I’m grateful that books and the journal entries I’ve made about them have the power to evoke my own memories, showing me where I’ve been, how far I’ve come, and prompting the telling of personal stories.
My latest book journal is filling up, beginning in April of 2018 with Chris Bohajian’s The Sleepwalkers. I can’t wait to see where the next volume takes me and how it hones my writing to its sharpest ever.
Melissa Gouty keeps journals on everything — movies, books, trips, creative writing ideas, copywriting thoughts, restaurant reviews, writing projects, sewing projects, home decorating ideas, goals, and prayers.
She will have to live to be three hundred years old to have enough time to read the books she wants to read and write the articles she wants to write.
Even three centuries won’t be enough.